For their senior project, best friends will be co-captains at Saturday’s Relay for Life

As their senior project, best friends Tanner Bonillas and Noah West, both Yosemite High seniors, chose to be team captains for this year’s Relay for Life event.
As their senior project, best friends Tanner Bonillas and Noah West, both Yosemite High seniors, chose to be team captains for this year’s Relay for Life event. Sierra Star

It’s customary for Jesse West to attend Oakhurst’s Relay for Life with her older brother, Noah. She goes everywhere he goes, her ashes hanging in a small vial around his neck.

Jesse died at age 9 when Noah, now 18 and a Yosemite High School senior, was 12.

“She will forever be a part of my heart and my life,” Noah said. “I try to take her everywhere I go, to track meets, on vacation. She’s in a necklace that I wear, and people always ask if I’m wearing a flashlight. I respond, ‘nope, it’s my sister.’”

Noah was heartbroken when he first learned that his younger sister, Jesse, had stage IV brain cancer. It’s a hard thing to understand at any age, especially one so young. His parents tried to explain what cancer was and what Jesse’s future could hold. Quite naturally, most of their attention was focused on her.

“When a sibling needs your parents attention 24/7,” Noah continued, “there isn’t much left for anyone else. There were a lot of days when our dad would pick me up from school and we would head down to see Jesse. We would eat dinner at the hospital, and I would do my homework there with a nurse helping me. My sister practically lived in the hospital so we spent birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays there. It was hard to go through.”

One saving grace during such a distressing time was Camp Sunshine Dreams, offered through Valley Children’s Hospital. It’s a place for young cancer patients and their siblings to spend a week at Huntington Lake - a brief spark of happiness amidst bleak darkness - a chance to connect with other youngsters who are going through similar experiences, with similar feelings.

It’s the place Noah first felt comfortable and safe enough to tell his story and share his pain about being a middle schooler with a sister in the fight of her life. He had no desire to talk to his teachers, his school counselor, to a stranger, or to his parents. “My mom will ask to this day if I want to see a counselor about Jesse, and I say ‘no thanks I'm going to camp this year.’ Camp was always my happy place.”

Once someone has attended, they are given the opportunity to return as a camp counselor, something Noah did for the first time last year. “I just loved giving the kids the best week they had ever experienced, and plan on returning as a counselor for as long as I can. This camp is a place where you don’t have to worry about crying because crying is okay. It’s a safe place to tell your story and share feelings ... it’s the best counseling offered to any child.”

Noah and his best friend Tanner Bonillas, 17, have participated in Relay for Life for nine years. As a joint senior project, they are team captains for the YHS Service Club.

Tanner began as such a young participant that he initially didn’t comprehend what it all meant or why he was involved.

“I grew up watching my grandma battle cancer,” Tanner said. “I’ve seen her at her worst and it broke my heart. She wasn’t always able to come out to my school events or sports due to her treatments. After seeing her cancer battle, it became my goal to support her and others in their battle.”

Tanner has made many friends along the way, and sharing a common experience, he and Noah’s relationship grew stronger.

“We helped each other with problems and supported our friends and community. We’ve been on the same team for years, fighting for a cure. I relay to help him and his family with their loss of Jesse,” Tanner said.

It seems that inspiration springs from profound loss.

“My bowling coach of three years died last year from cancer,” Tanner continued. “He played a huge role in my life. The loss of my good friend has inspired me even more to keep fighting for a cure.”

Seeing what Jesse went through has motivated Noah to create a clear vision for his future. Post high school graduation, he will obtain his bachelor degree in nursing from Grand Canyon University, with the ultimate goal of working as an oncology nurse for children diagnosed with cancer.

“I just have so much passion for children, and understand what the patients and siblings are going through, and how much support and care they need,” Noah said. “This is a horrendous disease and I hope we find a cure so that no child ever has to experience what Jesse did.”

Tanner plans on attending Fresno City to learn welding, and will then transfer to Butte Welding College in Chico.